Coasting to a near standstill

Ivorian panache has been replaced by rigid and regemented European regime under Eriksson. Richard Jolly reports

Geographically, it is Africa's World Cup. On the football field, however, it appears to be South America's. When Ivory Coast line up against North Korea today, their tasks include salvaging a continent's pride on the pitch. Expectations were initially high. "My teammates and I want to make history and want to change the way the world sees African football," Didier Drogba said last year.

"I hope that we'll be the team that is going to go to the final and win the competition." As it turns out, qualifying for the next round would be an achievement now. Notions of pan-African unity can be exaggerated, but there was nonetheless a sense that this tournament would provide a breakthrough for the region's heavily-commended teams. Instead it is no more successful than the last World Cup in Germany in 2006.

Thus far, Africa has underachieved. Its representatives are averaging under a point a game and only Ghana have reached the knockout stages so far. To join them, the Ivorians need as dramatic a turnaround as the competition has witnessed: victory against the rank outsiders, coupled with Brazil defeating Portugal and a nine-goal swing from Carlos Quieroz's team to Sven-Goran Eriksson's. "If Portugal can beat North Korea 7-0 why can't we do the same?" Arthur Boka, the defender, asked. A rhetorical question and wishful thinking, perhaps, but it invites unwelcome answers: because such results are a rarity, because North Korea are likely to revert to the defensive tactics they deployed against Brazil and because Ivory Coast, unlike Portugal, have the pressure of needing an avalanche of goals.

And yet Boka has a point: Ivory Coast are not Africa's champions - Egypt are - or the highest-ranked of its sides at the World Cup - Cameroon, the first eliminated, hold that accolade for the meantime - but they may be its most talented team. They possess the African Footballer of the Year, in Drogba, and a man who has won seven trophies in two seasons with Barcelona, in Yaya Toure. In Kolo Toure, his brother, Didier Zokora, Kader Keita, Salomon Kalou and Gervinho, the Elephants have ability in abundance.

They also have an unfortunate habit of perishing in the World Cup's resident "Group of Death". Argentina and Holland progressed at their expense four years ago. Now it appears probable Brazil and Portugal will. If that is the case, Eriksson's brief and lucrative spell in charge will conclude today. Coupled with the early elimination of Nigeria, under his compatriot, Lars Lagerback, and Cameroon, managed by Paul le Guen, the Frenchman, it has prompted suggestions that, Ghana apart, the west Africans have been stifled by more defensive European coaches.

"We are so happy to get Eriksson as our manager because now we are more solid and more compact," said Emmanuel Eboue after the stalemate with Portugal. Now, however, that looks an opportunity missed. And has solidity come at the expense of skill? Eriksson's decision to leave the exuberant Gervinho on the bench against Brazil was intriguing. The Lille forward was the Ivorians' brightest attacker against Portugal but then made way for a fit-again Drogba for the defeat to Dunga's side. When belatedly introduced, Gervinho created Drogba's goal.

His much-travelled manager is finishing a third job on as many continents in 15 months. Inscrutable as ever, polarising opinions as he long has done, Eriksson maintains his image as an international man of mystery. For some, the mystery is that gifted footballers have not achieved more. "African teams are performing so badly," Le Guen says, before adding cryptically. "I'm not going to be able to explain it at length but there is a certain logic behind it. It's certainly not a coincidence."

Coincidence or not, there is a sense that it is a shame.